Gaharu, agarwood, aloewood, or call it by any other name, it has a fragrance so sublime that its aficionados dubbed it the “incense of the gods”, while the ancient mariners braved the high seas in search of it. For sure, the charm and allure of gaharu or agarwood has not diminished over the ages. Instead, the demand is still so high that the gaharu-producing trees, specifically the Aquilaria species in the wild (called “karas” in Malaysia) are now listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) since 1995.
The big demand for gaharu over the centuries and traditions of the world, is because of its fragrance that is said to be capable of inducing a sense of tranquility, healing, spiritual cleansing and awakening.
The big money in the agarwood industry had led to an increase in the number of estate plantations of the species in the region in recent years, especially in the Indochinese states, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia which are well-known for the incense. With a value worth much more than its weight in gold and a demand so high, it is no wonder that scientists and researchers are scrambling to unravel its secrets in the labs and in estate plantations.
It is also not surprising that the people in the gaharu fragrance business are following the scientists and researchers, looking over their shoulders for any lead to produce the best and more of the merchandise. Such was the scenario at the 1st International Scientific Symposium on Agarwood (ISSA) 2013 hosted by Universiti Putra Malaysia (UPM) from 3 – 5 September 2013 where nearly half of the participants were from the businesses, which were also the main sponsors.
“But we were able to bring together scientists and researchers who had published their works on gaharu, to come to the conference to share their work, research findings and experiences,” said Assoc. Prof Dr Rozi Mohamed, the chair of the organising committee of ISSA 2013.
By having these scientists and researchers come together to present their papers, research work and experience, she said they were able to leap frog in their gain of knowledge, while laying the groundwork for inter-state collaboration. A total of 104 participants from 16 countries attended the conference where 43 of them were either speakers and presenters. The countries are Japan, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, Australia, Laos, Singapore, Netherlands, Kuwait, Korea, Brunei, Thailand and Malaysia.
Although UPM had hosted conferences on gaharu at the national level, ISSA 2013 was the first at the international level and it was a joint effort with the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), the Asia Pacific Association of Forestry Research Institutions (APAFRI), the Malacca State Forestry Department and the Malaysian Timber Industry Board (MTIB).
Dr Rozi, who is lecturing at the Department of Forest Management of the Faculty of Forestry of UPM, said the previous conferences on agarwood either at international or national levels were more like a trade expo to attract the business people. For this reason, UPM decided to host ISSA 2013 to bring together the scientists and researchers, based on their published works.
While the response was very good, she said they also opened their doors to the people in the trade because of their financial support and also because the scientists and researchers wanted to know the needs of the industry.
UPM Vice Chancellor Prof Datuk Dr Mohd Fauzi Ramlan in his keynote address said the Malaysian Government had identified agarwood as one of the main commodities in the new Agriculture National Key Economic Areas (NKEAs) to boost up the national economy. The theme “Agarwood in the New Era” of the conference was also in line with UPM’s vision of becoming a world leader in the new tropical agriculture, he said. He also noted that Malaysia is the 2nd largest exporter of agarwood after Indonesia, when 18 corporate companies exported about 200,000 kg of the wood last year.
The Dean of the Forestry Faculty, Prof Datin Dr Faridah Hanum Ibrahim said in her message that agarwood is a niche area of significant scientific research in her faculty and she hoped that ISSA would be continued in the years to come. From the papers presented, they were able to establish the facts from fictions or claims about gaharu.
“It revealed to us the very sophisticated lab work being done on gaharu, no more basic research,” said Dr Rozi who had received her trainings from the Oregon State University in the US, in the fields of forest biotechnology and plant pathology.
“The scientists found ISSA 2013 to be very useful because of the collaboration being worked by those from China, Japan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Australia, Indonesia and Malaysia,” she said. For Malaysia and China in particular, she said UPM would be sending one of her students to the labs in Beijing for research on gaharu.
Among the established facts on gaharu revealed at ISSA 2013 were:-
* that the laxative properties of the leaves of the tree used as a traditional herbal tea are confirmed and the Japanese researchers concerned planned to launch their product soon;
* the resin or gaharu is produced by the tree in response to attacks by fungi or microbes and that even young trees can be induced to produce the gaharu resin through inoculation and infection;
* the leaves when induced in the lab, can produce callus which, when burnt, gave a whiff of gaharu. This shows that the leaves and stems can be induced to produce the gaharu resin;
* better methods as revealed by Bangladeshi researchers had led to hefty increase in extraction of gaharu oil when compared to traditional methods;
* higher yields are obtained in infected plants when compared with healthy ones;
*the fragrance of gaharu has yet to be artificially produced;
* the Aquilaria malaccenis or “karas” trees can be planted as an estate plantation in the interiors for a sustainable economic activity of the minorities, like the orang asli or the aboriginal people of Malaysia who have been practising sustainable extraction of gaharu in the wild.
These orang asli who are the main sources of the highly-prized gaharu from the Aquilaria malaccensis variety, would use their parang or machetes to cut certain parts of the tree to extract the gaharu without killing the trees, to which they would return in two to three years to extract the gaharu again.
Dr Rozi said they also found that the most expensive gaharu costing about US$10,000 per kilo are exported to Japan where the aficionados indulged in the practice of “listening” to the gaharu, meaning they would sit around a smoking gaharu chip in an enclosed room and meditate while relishing the twirling incense.
The Chinese, on the other hand, would carve the gaharu wood into beautiful sculptures to appreciate and enjoy the grains and patterns formed by the gaharu resin in the wood. The resin permeates around the infected cells in the wood which when exposed over time would acquire a sheen that is oily to touch and is fragrant.
The Arabs who are the biggest consumers of gaharu and its oil, would light up the incense after dinner for their honoured guests. Like all aficionados, theywould burn the chips over rectangular pieces of charcoal wrapped with aluminium foil so as not to singe or scorch the gaharu and spoil its fragrance. – UPM